The Thrillers You Keep

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Ink has been spilt debating when genre novels become literary fiction. My rule of thumb for recognizing the best in any genre is this: notice what books you keep, won’t lend and need to reread every few years. In detective fiction, for me, this means the books of Ross Macdonald, whose PI hero, Lew Archer, investigated murder and excess in post-war California.

Ross Macdonald was the pen name of the Scottish Canadian-born writer Kenneth Millar. He wrote The Moving Target because he needed money. It was 1949, he was 32 and already he knew his commercial future lay in writing crime novels. But his two first attempts, followed by the ill-advised ‘serious novel’, had generated little income. He wanted to pull his weight financially – his wife, Margaret Millar, was already a successful crime writer. He needed a quick, colourful, saleable book.

Post-war America had an unquenchable appetite for stories about strong capable men working as private eyes. Macdonald’s central character, Lew Archer, a divorced ex-policeman and private investigator ‘working for 65 dollars a day’, was a fictional hero for the time. Macdonald’s publishers were grudging with an advance but the critics did not stint their praise. ‘You can put this on your Chandler, Hammett shelf and it won’t look out of place’ was the critical consensus. Furthermore, Millar had enjoyed writing it. From the outset he acknowledged how much of himself was in the character of Lew Archer. ‘I’m not Archer,’ he later famously remarked, ‘but Archer is me.’

The Moving Target is written with more than a passing nod to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). Both open with a PI summoned to a mansion to find a missing person. But Chandler’s client, General Sternwood, wants someone found whom he likes and misses. Lew Archer, on the other hand, has to find Ralph Sampson, an absent millionaire, unlovingly described by his wife as ‘Half-man, half- alliga

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About the contributor

France Donnelly still lives in Suffolk and still bakes. She was about to move this January and is profoundly grateful that she didn’t. When lockdown ceases she plans to adopt a retired Irish greyhound.

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